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Gus Glossary: Breaking Down the Linebacker Roles in Coverage

Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley is bringing a new style of defense to the Colts. How will the Colts' linebacker play change in 2022?
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The Indianapolis Colts have made a new hire at defensive coordinator, as they have agreed to terms with long time coach Gus Bradley. In this series for the site, I will be defining some important terms and roles for this defense to give you all a better understanding of them when they pop up in future articles.

Today's article is all about the Colts' linebackers in pass coverage. This will be one of the more drastic changes for the Colts' defense, as the linebackers will have a lot more on their plate under Gus Bradley than they ever did under Matt Eberflus. Let's dive into some similarities and differences between the two schemes (for the linebackers).

Rally To The Ball

While Bradley's scheme is fairly different from former Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus' in a lot of ways, they do share a common theme. Both coordinators rely on zone-heavy schemes that are designed to funnel passes to underneath zones and then have the rest of the defense rally for short gains.

Defensive coaches always talk about eliminating the big play, but Bradley's defense is predicated on forcing everything short, much like Matt Eberflus' scheme over the past few seasons with Indy. Both coordinators go about this in different ways, but the main principle of having an effort-based defense that rallies to the ball still remains.

The linebackers are key in this type of scheme, especially on third downs. The linebackers are required to come up and make tackles on these underneath throws in order to get opposing offenses off of the field. Bradley plays a lot of "sticks" coverage on third downs, where he lines up his linebackers on the first down marker with the intent to come up and tackle anything underneath. Eberflus was very similar in this regard too.

Pattern-Matching

The two schemes begin to diverge a bit after those main fundamentals, though. Matt Eberflus relied on a lot of split-safety coverages, where he would either drop his players in cover two or quarters to eliminate big plays. This would allow for two deep safeties to eliminate vertical shots.

For Bradley, he likes to rely on a single-high safety defense, often sitting in cover one or cover three type of looks. This type of defense was made famous by the Seattle Seahawks back in 2012, as the Legion of Boom dominated offenses with their length and speed. While that defense was widely successful back in the day, it is vastly different from what the Colts are going to be running in 2022.

Bradley said this in an interview when asked about his scheme now in relation to that old Seattle cover three:

I think that before it was more of a landmark, ball out, break. But it’s now evolved to where it’s more of a match principle based on some pre-snap and post-snap indicators. I think it went from back in the day the initial stages of the Seattle three or hawk three, to where now it’s evolved.

Spot-drop, or landmark, zone coverage is essentially an outdated concept in the NFL nowadays. Everything is pattern-matching and hybrid zone/man coverage looks. The reason for that is that NFL passing offenses are so adaptive and explosive nowadays. If a defense wants to sit in a basic spot-drop cover three defense, an offense will just kill them all game long with vertical shots up the seams. A single-high safety would have no chance to stop those two on one routes all by himself.

That is where pattern-matching comes into play. Pattern-matching in zone coverage essentially makes all zone coverage calls into man coverage. I know that may be a bit confusing, but just hear me out. Instead of having linebackers allow vertical tight ends or slot receivers to run right past them to the safety, they will carry that vertical route and help that safety stay over the top.

Let's look at an example below. Cory Littleton is aligned as the WILL backer, while Denzel Perryman is the MIKE. Perryman signals to Littleton off of the snap that the play-side tight end is going to be running a vertical route. Littleton picks up on this and begins to flip his hips to run with the route. By doing this, the deep safety gets the much needed help he needs on a vertical route that could have given him some trouble:

The Colts' defense under Matt Eberflus didn't do as much pattern-matching with their linebackers. Eberflus liked to keep his linebackers with eyes on the quarterback in short-intermediate zones, and he wanted the two-high safeties to worry about vertical routes on the inside. As you can see in these clips below, the linebackers would let these vertical routes run by as they would keep their eyes focused underneath.

ROBOT on Play-Action

Another notable change coming to the Colts' linebackers is how they counter play-action concepts. While the defense did start to do more of this under Matt Eberflus in 2021, it was still a bit different from how Gus Bradley wants his linebackers to shut down these concepts.

A common play-action call in the NFL nowadays is to have a backside receiver or tight end run across the field on a deep crosser or in route. That would normally cause a lot of issues for a cover three defense, as it would put a ton of stress on the deep safety and the play-side linebacker. The response to this was to create what is called a ROBOT technique.

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ROBOT is the acronym for the roll over and back technique. The first read for a linebacker is always the run, so it is natural for a player to take a read-step when they see play-action. In the past, linebackers would have to quickly shuffle back into their zone once seeing that it was pass, leaving an open window behind them for quarterbacks to hit.

With the ROBOT technique, linebackers are turning and running to that crosser behind them. They aren't worried about getting eyes on the quarterback, their only goal is to get underneath the crossing route to provide help for the safety over the top.

This clip below with Cory Littleton showcases the technique quite well:

The Colts were a bit inconsistent with this last year. The linebackers were asked to get depth and get eyes on the quarterback rather than finding these crossing routes. This clip below shows Shaquille Leonard getting to his spot, but failing to take away the crossing route option for the offense off of the play-action pass.

Route Recognition in General

Matt Eberflus made life easy for his linebackers. He let them (mostly) spot-drop into flat or hook zones and read everything in front of them. Their tasks and assignments were kept simple to allow for these top athletes to fly around and make plays in front of them. It is going to be completely different under Gus Bradley.

Bradley asks a lot out of his linebackers and expects them to be major force players in coverage. Linebackers in this scheme are asked to diagnose routes, and asked to pattern-match anything that could threaten the single-high safety from the inside. Communication is also huge in this scheme, as players need to be constantly aware of when to pass off and switch assignments.

All of this to say that there is going to be a bit of a learning curve for this defense in 2022. Take a look at this play from Denzel Perryman this past season. He opens up his hips and gets eyes on both the crossing receiver and the quarterback. He eliminates the crosser on the play, which forces the quarterback to scramble for a short gain.

Now flip it to the Colts' defense from last season and you can see the difference. All three linebackers have their eyes in the backfield on their drops, and all three aren't feeling the route behind them down the field. While I'm not saying that these players were responsible for this deep completion, I am saying that they will be going forward. They will have to read routes like this and will be expected to carry them vertically down the field.

Final Thoughts

The Colts' linebackers will be undergoing the biggest change of any group heading into the 2022 season. Under Matt Eberflus, this group was responsible for attacking downhill and staying in the intermediate/short zones. Under Gus Bradley, these players are going to have a lot more on their plate.

A player like Shaquille Leonard will be asked to play with his back to the ball more, and he will be responsible for reading route combinations as they are happening. For a player that has always been able to keep his eyes in the backfield (and be a bit of a freelancer), how does this change impact him?

I am super intrigued by how this group performs in coverage in 2022. They are totally capable of fitting into Gus Bradley's scheme, they just haven't been asked to do this much in the NFL up to this point. The success of the Colts' defense in 2022 will ultimately come down to how well the linebackers perform in pass coverage in this new scheme.

Need your fill on daily Colts' content? Head over to the Locked On Colts' YouTube channel where Jake Arthur and myself hit on all the major topics surrounding this team. Hit that subscribe button while you are there!


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